New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
“My aim in writing The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (Guides to the Coinage of the Ancient World) was “to show how rich and nuanced a history of the Hellenistic world one can write through the beautiful gold, silver and bronze coin-issues of its kings and cities.” says the author Peter Thonemann, Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham College, University of Oxford.
The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (Cambridge University Press, January 1, 2016) is the first of a new book series, Guides to the Coinage of the Ancient World, jointly produced by the American Numismatic Society and Cambridge. The series is designed to introduce students to the ways in which ancient Greek and Roman coinage can be used as a historical source, not only for political history, but economic, social, and art history as well,” Dr. Peter van Alfen, Margaret Thompson Curator of Ancient Greek Coins, American Numismatic Society, told the GN, “With three books currently in preparation on the coinage of Athens and the Athenian Empire, the coinage of Alexander the Great, and the coinage of the Roman Republic, the series will continue to explore various periods and areas of ancient studies.”
While it is suitable as a textbook for university courses in Greek and Roman history and archaeology, the
accessibly and vividly written,The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources is also clearly a great addition to the personal library of anyone interested in knowing more about what the author, who is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Wadham College, University of Oxford, calls “the ‘big’ Greek world of the early Hellenistic period, when a single language and culture could carry you from the western Mediterranean to the foothills of the Hindu Kush.”
“This is an up-to-date introduction to the coinages and history of the Hellenistic world, which is to say, of the entire Greek-speaking oikoumene, from Marseilles to India, stretching from the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) to the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt by Rome (31/30 BC),” Thonemann told the GN.
“The Hellenistic age, thrilling and fascinating though it was, has traditionally been rather neglected by historians of the Greek-speaking peoples: certainly it has never been afforded the kind of detailed and loving attention lavished by historians, archaeologists and art historians on the so-called ‘Classical’ age of Greece (ca. 479-338 BC) that preceded it,” said Thonemann, “This neglect is, to my mind, frankly bizarre. The Hellenistic age saw the globalization of Greek culture, with a single civilization for the first (and only) time holding sway everywhere from the Rhône to the Indus. The Greek language was spoken and written in the Ukraine, Bahrain, and Uzbekistan, and Greek kings and colonists settled new Greek-style poleis in the mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of Mesopotamia. This is, by any standards, a gloriously exciting period of Greek history.”
“It’s true that our evidence for Hellenistic history is a wreck,” said Thonemann, “Very few literary sources from the period survive, and no continuous narrative histories of the kind which we can draw on for earlier periods (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and others),” but there is always material evidence: the physical remains of cities and sanctuaries, inscriptions, art and architecture, and of course coins. In fact, the evidence of coins is perhaps more important for this period than for any other epoch of Greek history. Several of the great Hellenistic kingdoms are known to us effectively from their coin-issues alone: the Greco-Macedonian kingdom of Bactria, in northern Afghanistan and central Asia, and the Indo-Greek kingdom, in modern Pakistan, are perhaps the two most notable examples. My aim in writing this book was to show how rich and nuanced a history of the Hellenistic world one can write through the beautiful gold, silver and bronze coin-issues of its kings and cities.”
Thonemann cited an example (shown below), a Tetradrachm minted by Baydād, mid-third century BC.
“The legend on the reverse reads: ‘Baydād, frataraka by grace of the gods, son of Bagawart’. Here is a four-drachm silver coin struck in western Iran in the mid-third century BC, perhaps at Istakhr, just to the north of the old Achaemenid Persian capital at Persepolis. The text on the reverse face of the coin is in Aramaic, and proclaims the coin to have been minted by a certain Baydād, a native Iranian dynast who carried the title of frataraka or ‘forerunner’.”
“This seems to have been the earliest coinage ever struck in south-western Iran. The front or obverse face of the coin carries a highly distinctive portrait – probably an image of Baydād himself – showing the frataraka sporting an elaborate headdress, with long ear-flaps tucked below a broad band; he also wears a diadem and hoop earrings, along with a splendid beard and moustache. On the reverse, Baydād is shown seated on a throne, wielding a sceptre, in front of a Persian military standard.”
“At first sight, this coin “looks about as un-Greek as can be – but in fact, not so!” said Thonemann, continuing his analysis, “Macedonian royal coinages provide the model for the weight-standard (Attic, based on a drachm of around 4.3g) and the denomination (tetradrachm), as well as for the right-facing diademed ruler portrait on the obverse, the Zeus-like seated figure on the reverse, and even the borders of dots on the obverse and reverse. The exotic coin-portrait of Baydād, for all its superficially Persian attributes (headdress, earrings, twirly moustache), is in stylistic terms unambiguously a portrait à la grecque: note in particular the highly individualized features, the long neck with pronounced tendon, and deep-set eyes, all of them standard features of Greek ruler-portraiture in this period. On the reverse, the seated king’s pose is identical to that of Zeus on the reverse of the silver coins of Alexander the Great, and seems to be an imitation of the Macedonian conqueror’s coinage.”
“So what this amazing coin shows is, in fact, quite how Hellenized the native dynasts of south-western Iran were by the mid-third century BC. They were using coins struck in the Greek style, on a Greek weight-standard, in Greek denominations; almost every individual detail of their portraiture and coin-iconography was drawn directly from contemporary Greco-Macedonian royal coinages,” Thonemann concluded, “This particular Iranian ruler is completely unknown from any source other than his coins: but from those alone, we get some sense of how well he fitted into the ‘big’ Greek world of the early Hellenistic period, when a single language and culture could carry you from the western Mediterranean to the foothills of the Hindu Kush.”
“Peter Thonemann’s The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources looks at one of the most complex periods in ancient history, the Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds after Alexander the Great’s conquests and death in Babylonia in 323 BC,” said Peter van Alfen, “This was a world in which the successors kings vied for territory and power, and city-states negotiated new statuses with their new rulers as well as with each other. At the same time, Alexander’s conquest unleashed on the world hundreds of tons of silver and gold that had been stored in Persian treasuries, a great deal of which was converted into coinage. Many of these coins bore detailed portraits of rulers for the first time in history, and monetized parts of the Near East that had previously used different currency systems. The impact of coinage at this time was, in no small way, tremendous, as Thonemann details.”
We look forward to Peter Thonemann’s newest book, to be released on April 1, an Oxford University Press publication titled The Hellenistic Age, about the three centuries that followed the conquests of Alexander, an age of cultural globalization which Thonemann considers to be “perhaps the most thrilling of all periods of ancient history: in the third century BC, a single language carried you from the Rhône to the Indus.”